In Europe, the herb milk thistle is commonly used along with other treatments for hepatitis. Keep in mind, though, that this is a very serious disease. Medical supervision is essential. Milk Thistle: May Be Helpful for Chronic Hepatitis Milk thistle may be useful as a supportive treatment for chronic hepatitis. Native to Europe, milk thistle has a long history of use as both a food and a medicine. At the turn of the twentieth century, English gardeners grew milk thistle to use its leaves like lettuce (after cutting off the spines), the stalks like asparagus, the roasted seeds like coffee, and the roots (soaked overnight) like oyster plant. The seeds and leaves of milk thistle were used for medicinal purposes as well.
German researchers in the 1960s were sufficiently impressed with the history and clinical effectiveness of milk thistle to begin examining it for active constituents. The most important ingredient appears to be silymarin (actually a set of four related substances), which appears to possess a wide variety of liver-protective benefits. It is one of the few herbs that have no real equivalent among standard medications.
In 1986, Germany's Commission E approved an oral extract of milk thistle standardized to 70% crude silymarin content as a treatment for "toxic liver damage; also the supportive treatment of chronic inflammatory liver diseases and hepatic cirrhosis." The herb is widely used in chronic viral hepatitis as well as alcoholic fatty liver, liver cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, chemical-induced liver toxicity, and abnormal liver enzymes of unknown cause. In addition, milk thistle is often added as a protective agent when drugs that are known to be toxic to the liver are used. An intravenous preparation made from milk thistle is used as an antidote for poisoning by the deathcap mushroom, Amanita phalloides.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Milk Thistle?
Preliminary double-blind studies of people with chronic hepatitis have shown significant improvement in symptoms such as fatigue, reduced appetite, and abdominal discomfort. Laboratory signs of liver injury also showed improvement in these trials. However, larger research trials need to be performed before milk thistle can be called a proven treatment for chronic hepatitis. Milk thistle may also be helpful in acute hepatitis; a study that found it ineffective has been criticized for including many individuals who probably did not have hepatitis.
As for most herbs, the mechanism of action of milk thistle remains in doubt. In mushroom poisoning and other liver-toxic exposure, silymarin is believed to get in the way of toxins trying to bind to liver cell membrane receptors by binding to the receptors itself. This is called competitive inhibition. Incidentally, glutathione, a compound that our body normally produces to protect the liver and kidney from reactive chemicals, works in a similar fashion. Many other suggestions of how milk thistle may function have been made, but which one is correct remains unclear.
For more information, including dosage and safety issues, see the full milk thistle article.
Other Proposed Treatments for Viral Hepatitis: Licorice In Japan, an injectable combination of licorice (the herb, not the candy) and certain amino acids is used for chronic hepatitis. However, it is not clear whether oral licorice is equally useful, and the high dosages used for treatment of chronic hepatitis may cause an elevation of blood pressure and other serious medical problems.
Warning: Do not inject preparations of licorice designed for oral use.
Chinese and Japanese herbal medicines typically use combinations of herbs rather than just one. However, a review of the literature found no conclusive evidence that any of these combinations are effective for the treatment of hepatitis B.
Other Herbs and Supplements
Thymus extract has been tried as a treatment for hepatitis B and C. However, the results of small double-blind trials have not been positive.
The herb Phyllanthus amarus has been extensively studied as a treatment for chronic hepatitis, but it does not appear to be effective.
Other common natural medicine recommendations for hepatitis include high doses of vitamin C; liver extracts; taurine; lecithin; and the herbs astragalus, reishi, and schisandra. However, there is as yet no solid scientific evidence that these approaches really work.
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